Pastor, Police Discuss Church Safety

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Chris Fitzwater Chris Fitzwater
Steve Upman Steve Upman

Safety on Sunday mornings is becoming an increasing concern for church-goers. NBC29’s Madison Carter sat down with religious leaders, law enforcement, and those who worship in central Virginia to ask them how we got to this point. They discussed why some don't feel safe going to church and what others think lies ahead.

“The church used to be a place of sanctuary. I mean, it's what we call the room in our church where we worship in most cases,” said Lighthouse Charlottesville Pastor Chris Fitzwater.

Sutherland Springs, Texas, Charleston, South Carolina. The Center for Homicide Research says church shootings are becoming more common.

“No, not 10 years ago I hadn't even thought about it. I just went to church,” said Jack Chambers, associate minister at FABC.

No longer universally considered a safe place, the church, instead, can be a target.

“The opportunity is there. Churches are welcoming buildings, they're left open, so how do you balance security with keeping a welcoming environment?” Charlottesville Police Lt. Steve Upman.

Pastors used to spend the week preparing a sermon, but these days they're carving out time to talk security protocols with law enforcement. Ten years ago, people's biggest concern when coming to church was leaving their purse behind when coming up to the collection plate. But now, they're coming to their church finding locked doors, security protocols, and having to learn things like "avoid, deny, and defend."

Avoid: “Get away from the problem, the threat, as quickly as possible,” said Upman.

Deny: “If you can't get away, then lock yourself in a room away from the threat,” he continued.

And Defend: “That’s a personal choice where if you’re backed into a corner you have to make that decision of whether you're going to defend yourself or not,” the police lieutenant said.

Many religious leaders Carter spoke with said they have security measures in place, but do not necessarily publicize them to the congregation.

Some congregants said they'd like to hear more.

“Every church now has got to put a plan in with security, cameras,” said Edith Thompson.

“I know there are a few members of my church who bring their legal guns to church, and I pray, and I think about where I'd go if something happened,” Patricia Edwards said.

People of faith often have the mindset of “God's in control,” or “it’s all in God’s timing.” There’s a concept of “maybe it’s God’s plan."

“We have to be prepared. Just because we are prepared, does not mean that we don't trust God. Those are not mutually exclusive ideas,” Fitzwater said.

Churches who want to reach out to law enforcement can get a free consultation. An officer will come to the church, train with security staff, and help establish weak points and exit routes.